The Evolution of a Pond

I’m rarely satisfied.

This trait is both beautiful and terrible. It pushes me to achieve more than I ever thought possible, and yet I almost never feel truly finished with anything – projects, writing, etc. I know that I can always improve.

In Season 1, Episode 7 of “Revisionist History,” Malcolm Gladwell describes two types of artists. Picassos seem to create pieces quickly (but often meditate on the piece long beforehand). Cézannes remake the same song, object, etc. over and over until reaching a “final” product.

Although I think and plan, I am a Cézanne.

I’ve previously traced my chicken coop designs over the six years I’ve lived in my human coop. But long before I ever decided to get chickens, I started thinking about ponds. I’ve always loved the water – gentle splashing, smooth reflections of light. The moment I started looking at houses to buy, in the back of my mind, I was also planning my first pond.

Before I dug into the ground the first time, I had a few goals for my water feature:

  • a small waterfall
  • fish
  • to be able to hear the water through open living room windows.
  • within reach of an outlet (for the waterfall)

The most obvious location was right outside my side door. There’s a covered exterior outlet, and the side door leads straight into my living room. Perfect!

I started digging and pretty quickly ran into a thick PVC pipe. Okay, so my pond would be two levels: the end with the PVC pipe would be about six inches shallower than the far end. I figured it actually worked out pretty well for water circulation because the deeper end held the pump and filter box, and a hose ran the water from the box to the waterfall at the shallow end.

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This first pond was basically a hole with a sheet of pond liner on the clay (what passes for dirt here), some river pebbles along the bottom, and pavers around the rim. I built the “waterfall” out of stones and old concrete chunks I found around the yard.

What that picture doesn’t show is the leaves that constantly rained onto the water from an oak tree overhead. The tree provided nice shade that kept algae at bay, but it made cleaning the pond a constant struggle. Those little rectangular pavers were also inching into the water too.

That said, the pond was cute and met my initial needs. It was enough low enough that the chickens stopped by for water breaks. The few goldfish that called it home seemed pretty happy too.

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Here it’s not as pristine, but the goldfish enjoyed the creeping jenny trailing into the water. I also added a second layer of pavers around the perimeter, which improved the stability. However, the leaves were still an issue, and the chickens kicked mulch and debris into the pond every time they went near it.

The biggest issue with the first pond? Look how close that wall (and the house foundation) is to the pond. Although the pond likely wasn’t deep enough to permanently impact the foundation, as a new homeowner, I grew nervous (ditto with the weight of the water on that PVC pipe). Having a hole so close to the foundation just wouldn’t do for the long term.

The second pond was a little bit away from the house, but still within reach of the outlet. The distance was maybe eight feet? I also wanted an above-ground pond to combat the mulch-kicking from the chickens.

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Rather than buy a bunch of pavers, I decided to build a wooden frame and make my own “pavers” out of Quikrete. They weren’t gorgeous, but they were cheap and functional. As there was no obvious place for a waterfall, I opted for a fountain in the middle.

Actually, what I really wanted was to a hand holding a sword coming out of the water – a la Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake – with the sword acting as the fountain. I tried to build one out of a plastic sword and a manicurist practice hand, but I just couldn’t get it to work. Years later, I’m still sad; the Sword-in-the-Lake fountain would’ve been awesome.

You may notice that this pond had the added benefit of being a nice gathering point for a sitting area. That wooden post between the benches is part of a pergola I built not long after rebuilding the pond. The only thing is, this space was cramped. The pond was also a bit too small because I opted not to dig down more than a few inches before building up the sides.

But the biggest issue with this second version? My own desires and aesthetics. I yearned for mountain streams and curving water. The above-ground pond looked too constructed. I wanted something more natural and meandering, like the creeks of the North Carolina mountains where I used to hike. So down came Pond 2.0.

For the third pond, I started digging again. I laid out ropes and hold water hoses to approximate a winding creek. It would have a waterfall at one end and a pool (with the pump box) at the other. A second waterfall would separate the “creek” and the pool.

Fortunately, I was able to reuse all the pavers – bought and made – and the pebbles. I had to buy a few more bags of pebbles, though, because this new pond was quite a bit larger than previous versions.

Around the same time I was building this version of the pond, I had four ducklings quickly growing to adult size. One of the reasons I wanted to build larger was to give them a space (in addition to the repurposed bathtub in the coop) in which to splash around. Water isn’t required for ducks, but they sure do love it.

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The only downside of having a duck pond is those silly birds are also ravenous murder birds. I can’t really keep fish or any other living thing in the pond. Even the cleverest goldfish with plenty of hiding spots has eventually gotten snapped up.

This past summer, though, I tried an experiment and fenced off the upper pond with poultry wire. I added some aquatic plants and let the algae grow, hoping to create the perfect environment for toads and/or frogs. My end goal is to establish a toad or frog community for pest control in the gardens (which are only a few feet away from the pond).

It seemed to take forever – but I also didn’t have a good idea on when tadpoles appear in New Orleans. Then sometime around June, I realized little black dots were scooting around the pond!

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Pond 3.0 has worked well so far. It’s definitely my favorite design, and my qualms with it stem from structural choices. For example, the waterfall separating the upper and lower pond leaks water and is less of a “fall” and more of a “seeping pile of rocks.” I’ve also struggled to control algae at times because the pool sits in direct sunlight for much of the day (fortunately, the algae issue seems to have worked itself out, probably due to the ecosystem self-balancing).

I love ponds, and my favorite designs also skew towards more natural states. I enjoy watching plants and animals grow, develop, and interact. That’s probably why I also love creating gardens – it’s not just about growing plants. Gardens, for me, involve creating a natural community. Then, I just step back and observe.

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Hello, Pond! Or, So You’ve Realized Your Backyard is an Arid Wasteland of Despair

Perhaps the sound of flowing water soothes you. Maybe you want a spot for birds to drink and bathe.  Even if your house sits on a busy street and the only birds that visit are screeching blue jays, the day might arrive when you decide that your backyard must have a pond, and you must begin work that very afternoon with nothing more than high expectations and your own two hands.

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This desert just needs a charming little pond to spruce it right up!

Planning Your New Pond

Expect this project to cost between $50 and $30,000, depending on how well you can control yourself from impulse buys at home improvement stores (note:  inflatable dragons are unnecessary for this project). You will need a shovel, decorative rocks, a pump, a filter box made from a Rubbermaid storage bin, filters, a pond liner, and enough paving stones to hold the liner along the pond’s edge. Later, you will also need an actual filter box because the Rubbermaid bin has split down the sides and failed entirely.

Next, decide on the location of your pond. This could be right outside your back door, where there might already be a covered outlet to power your pump. Maybe the oak tree in your neighbor’s yard shades this patch of land and will prevent the fish you plan to add from boiling alive in the subtropical sun. This is a good spot. (Never mind that the tree also dumps leaves year round, and you’ll spend every other day scooping them out of the water. Now’s the time to dig and dream, not think about long-term consequences!)

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The finished project will definitely look exactly like this.

If you prefer not to flail around with a heavy, uncooperative sheet of black, stinky PVC, you can buy preformed pond liners of hard plastic, like kiddie pools with shelves. These are expensive, and the shape and depth constraints of a preformed pond liner can be frustrating when dealing with the sticky hell-clay that makes a poor excuse for your yard. Okay, maybe just buy the PVC liner that looks like a big black tarp and reeks of plastic off-gassing. Don’t worry about toxins leaking into the water; they probably won’t kill your fish and turn your charming pond into a noxious dead zone.

Building the Darn Thing

After an hour or so of battling the hell-clay with an ineffective shovel, you’ll realize that you need to determine the size and shape of your pond. Above-ground ponds fluctuate temperature more frequently than in-ground ponds. They also require additional costs in terms of material for the pond walls. Digging an in-ground pond will seem like the easier route. You might aim for an oval five feet long and three feet wide. Two feet is the recommended minimum depth for a pond with fish. It’s also the perfect depth for grabby little raccoon paws to snatch up your pets.

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Be prepared for your new pets:  fifteen of these rolly-polly fish thieves.

Regrets

After the second hour of ineffectual digging into your sticky hell-clay, you may be second-guessing your plans (what plans? you’re living in the moment!). Try to live somewhere with soft, pliable dirt, such as Iowa or in an episode of  TLC’s Gardening By the Yard. If that is not an option . . . eh, well, your pond hole is probably deep enough.

Although you planned for twenty-four inches of depth, eighteen should be enough for a subtropical climate that doesn’t see a hard freeze every winter, right? The ground will also insulate your pond. Yeah, this is sounding better.

Oh wait, but you hit a pipe twelve inches below the left half of your pond. Definitely stop digging. You were supposed to call 811 to have your utilities marked before starting, but you didn’t, did you? That’s okay; we’re living in the moment. Now your pond will have two depth levels. Fancy.

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Like this! And not at all like a muddy hole in the ground.

Wrestle the pond liner into the hole and weigh it down with decorative rocks. As the pond fills with water of questionable quality from your hose, try to figure out what to do with the mountain of leftover, sticky hell-clay. Keep in mind that wherever you shovel it, the mountain will not dissolve. It will linger like the bad memory of joking about someone’s hearing only to later discover that they were deaf.

Arrange stones around the perimeter of the pond to hold down the liner’s edge. Stack more stones (perhaps ones you have “borrowed” from a public park; judgment-free zone!) into a waterfall at the shallow edge. Place your pump in the deep end of the pond, and run a hose along the pond’s edge from the pump to the waterfall. The two-tier structure will help ensure water circulates from one end of the pond to the other. Claim the design was intentional. So fancy.

Adding Life

Most sources advise waiting a month or more before adding fish so the water can develop a nitrogen cycle. You, however, are special and do not need to wait. Wearing smears of brownish-gray mud like war paint, drive to the pet store. Leave a trail of clay clumps from the parking lot to the wall of glowing cerulean tanks. Your pond is, oh, 200 gallons? Capacity doesn’t matter. Buy around 30 of those little feeder goldfish. When the associate asks what you’ll be feeding, jokingly say “raccoons.” Look into the little black eyes of your new pets. Gulp down the guilt. Circle of life and all that.

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These are koi. Only buy these for your whim-pond if your other hobbies include throwing money at the ocean.

If one day you worry that having a giant hole right beside your house’s foundation might be causing the structure to shift, you can adapt these steps and rebuild. Perhaps you’ll try an above-ground pond and avoid slogging through more of that miserable clay. And maybe after that, you’ll decide an in-ground pond is better after all, and hey, let’s add a little winding stream and ducks and tadpoles and stop lecturing me about self-control, Mom.

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